A new history of Universalism

A blog post by historian John Fea alerted me to a new history of Christian universalism by Prof. Michael McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, and pointed me to an essay by McClymond that summarizes some of the book’s arguments. I turned to this essay with high hopes, because I would love to see a scholarly history of both organized universalism, and universalist theology.

And indeed, in the essay, McClymond makes what I think is an important argument: “Twenty-first-century Christian universalism may be interpreted as a form of [a] religion of humanity, minimizing humanity’s ineradicable spiritual divisions and annexing the biblical God to a secular affirmation of total human solidarity…. Universalism admits that the first-century Jesus was crucified, but it insists that the twenty-first-century Jesus will be crowned by the crowd. Universalism is the Gospel narrative frozen at the moment of the triumphal entry, when everyone stands in solidarity applauding Jesus.” In other words, Universalism is linked to rationalism, and more specifically to a rationalist interpretation of Biblical texts that selectively ignores any texts that disprove the idea of universal salvation.

Also of great interest to me was the way McClymond traces recent belief in universal salvation through twentieth century theologians such as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jurgen Moltmann, up into twenty first century authors David Hart and and Richard Rohr. McClymond doesn’t mention my favorite twenty first century Quaker Universalists, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland — but why should he? — they are marginal figures at best, especially compared to Richard Rohr who, according the McClymond, hobnobs with Oprah and Bono.

So far, so good.

But even though McClymond has an important argument to make, his essay reads more like an apologetic for traditional “limitarian” theology, rather than careful history. Indeed, I’d say his history comes across as slapdash. For example, his essay includes several inaccuracies just in the first two sentences:

“Not until the nineteenth century did any Christian body make universal salvation its official teaching. The first to do so, the Universalist Church, later merged with another to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.”

Organized Universalism dates to the late eighteenth century: the General Conference of Universalists was organized in 1793 (according to David Bumbaugh, former professor of history at Meadville Lombard Theological School). And New England Universalists organized themselves as early at 1785, so there is an argument to be made that organized Universalism in North American began in that year. The General Conference changed its name to the Universalist Church of America in 1942, less than twenty years before it consolidated (not merged; there is a legal difference) with the American Unitarian Association.

Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) was one of the founders of the General Conference of Universalists.

Minor details, but not unimportant details. Universalism did not originally call itself a “Church,” but rather named itself a “General Conference.” Theologically, this was consistent with Universalists’ emphasis on what historian Stephen Marini calls “Gospel liberty,” which in turn is important because there were multiple theologies of universal salvation among eighteenth and nineteenth century Universalists. Compare Hosea Ballou, Elhanan Winchester, John Murray, and James Relly, all active in the eighteenth century, and you will find diverse universalisms: trinitarian and unitarian, ultra-universalism (the belief that the soul goes immediately to heaven upon dying) and restorationism (the belief in punishment after death, but not for all eternity), and many other diversities of belief. This internal diversity in organized Universalism could actually strengthen McClymond’s argument that Universalism depended on rationalism, for each of these universalisms was argued on the basis that God gave humans rationality and expected them to use it to find out answers for themselves; thus these organized Universalists of the General Conference of Universalists placed rationality at least on a par with scriptural authority, and it could be argued that some of them placed rationality as superior to scriptural evidence.

There is even more theological diversity once you get outside the General Conference of Universalists, especially once you get into the twentieth century; by the mid twentieth century, the real strength of Universalism lay outside that denomination. The Great Depression caused the Universalist General Conference to shrink rapidly; changing the name to Universalist Church of America in 1942 was what we’d call today a rebranding effort, but rebranding didn’t work; according to some old Universalists I knew, the Universalists didn’t consolidate with the Unitarians, they were taken over by them; and perhaps a misinterpretation of these historical facts is why McClymond makes this unhistorical pronouncement: “Once human reasoning had deconstructed the divine mysteries of election and eschaton, it applied its tender mercies to the Trinity and Incarnation as well…. No election, no hell, no atonement, no divine Son, no divine Spirit, and no Trinity — all that remained was moral uplift and human solidarity, or, as one wit put it, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.” Oops: that last epigram was directed at the Unitarians, not the Universalists. But it’s simply wrong to conflate the Universalists and the Unitarians: Bob Needham, an old-time Universalist I once knew, is probably turning over in his grave to hear McClymond conflate Universalism and Unitarianism, for that kind of sloppy thinking infuriated him.

In truth, at the time of consolidation in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) retained very little of Universalism, and retained less and less as the years went by. By the twenty first century century, there are very few actual Universalists within the UUA, and the real strength of universalism lies outside the UUA — and also outside the Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBUs), the other main denominational home of the doctrine of universal salvation in North America. Today, Universalism is barely a footnote within the UUA; and the UUA and the PBUs are barely footnotes in the religious life of the United States.

Judith Sargent Murray published a Universalist catechism in 1782, which taught a “triune God.”

I still want a good solid history of universalism (small “u,” i.e., not restricted to the General Conference of Universalists and its successor bodies) that extends from at least the eighteenth century up through the present day. I’d like to see both an intellectual history, and a social history. I’d like to see a history that recognizes the diversity of beliefs within universal salvation — and there’s a great deal of diversity amongst Judith Sargent Murray, Karl Barth, Gulley and Mulholland, the Primitive Baptist Universalists, Richard Rohr, and Jurgen Moltmann. I’d like to see a history that pays careful attention to facts, even seemingly insignificant ones. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to get any of that from McClymond’s book. And I’m not willing to pay ninety bucks to buy his book to find out.

Oh well.

Any other scholars out there interested in writing a history of the doctrine of universal salvation?

Update, Nov. 13: revised captions and added parenthetical note defining ultra-Universalism; numerous minor edits for clarity.

Tracing Nathan Johnson in Census Records

Nathan Johnson was an African American who is best known for welcoming Frederick Douglass into his house on Douglass’s first night of freedom in New Bedford, Mass. In the late 1830s, Johnson was a member of the Universalist church in New Bedford, then served by the staunchly abolitionist minister John Murray Spear.

A few years ago, I wrote a brief biography of Nathan Johnson. Since then, online searching of federal and state census records has gotten much easier, and I easily tracked Johnson in Massachusetts through three U.S. Censuses. Of greater interest, I believe I have found him in the 1852 California census.

First, here are the U.S. Census records from Johnson’s time in New Bedford (note that links will require you to sign in to FamilySearch.org to view the photos of the census records):

1830 U.S. Census [see image 71 of 102]: Nathan Johnson listed as head of household; only white persons are enumerated in the census, and no one is enumerated in Nathan Johnson’s household, leading to the conclusion that he is black. Most probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.

1840 U.S. Census [see image 43 of 204]: Nathan Johnson, head of household; in the household were on black male between 10 and 24 years old, one black male between 33 and 55 [probably Johnson himself], 3 black females between 10 and 24, 1 black female between 24 and 33, 2 black females between 33 and 55, and one black female over 55. This corresponds well enough with what we know of Johnson’s household. Most probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.

1850 U.S. Census [see image 111 of 388]: Although I believe that Nathan was in California by 1850, his wife, Mary “Polly” Johnson may have expected him to return soon, and so reported him to the census taker. The household is listed as follows: Nathan Johnston [sic], 54 year old male, black, occupation “Waiter,” owning real estate valued at $15,500, born in Penna.; Mary J. Johnston, 60 year old female, black, born in Mass.; Charlotte A. Page, 10 year old female, black, born in Mass.; Clarissa Brown, 14 year old female, black, born in Ohio; Emily Brown, 75 year old female, black, born in Penna.; George Page, 17 year old male, black, occupation laborer, born in Mass. Probably our Nathan Johnson; I could find no other Nathan Johnson listed living in New Bedford.

Next, the 1852 California census:

An N. Johnson is listed as living in Yuba, Calif, age 57, born in Penna. In consulting other records, I had tentatively placed Nathan Johnson in Yuba City, so this could possibly be our Nathan Johnson. (No image of the census records available.) This was the only record I could find that matched our Nathan Johnson in California. Update on 8/29: Lisa deGruyter, who commented below, sent me the image of the 1852 California census, and reveals that this N. Johnson was white, probably age 36 (the handwriting is hard to read), born in Germany, and last lived in Louisiana — clearly not our Nathan Johnson.

Further update on 8/30: Lisa deGruyter has found our Nathan Johnson in the 1852 California census. He is listed as N. Johnston, age 54, black, occupation Miner, born Penna., last residence Mass., currently living in Yuba County.

Screenshot of the 1852 California Census; Nathan Johnson is on the first line.

And I was unable to find any further U.S. Census records of Nathan Johnson living in Massachusetts or California. Update on 8/29: Lisa deGruyter found a Nathan Johnson listed in the 1855 Massachusetts census as living in New Bedford, with occupation given as “Cal.” (in quotation marks), which, as Lisa points out, could mean that Nathan was working in California; listed as a black male, age 55, with Mary Johnson living with him; his birthplace Penna. This is almost assuredly our Nathan Johnson, and reveals that Polly still thought of his removal to California as in some sense temporary.

The most interesting bit of information is the 1852 California Census, which seems to confirm Johnson’s presence in Yuba. The most interesting piece of information is finding Nathan Johnson listed in the 1852 California Census as a miner in Yuba County. But where he was in California from 1852 to 1873 remains a mystery. Lisa deGruyter found a little more information in a National Park Service Research Report “California Pioneers of African Descent,” available here.

Nathan Johnson returned to Massachusetts after his wife’s death, in 1873. His gravestone in Oak Grove Cemetery in New Bedford states that he died Oct. 11, 1880, “aged 85 years,” with the legend “Freedom for all Mankind.” The death records for the City of New Bedford list his birthplace as Virginia, and it is possible that prior to the Civil War he gave a free state as his birthplace because he had emancipated himself from slavery.

Family tree for Unitarian Universalism

Drew asked about a “family tree” for the Unitarian Universalism, and as it happens I had drawn one back in 2003, so I revised it and sent it to him. It might be of interest to others:

Simplified family tree of the Unitarian Universalism

This family tree is based on a revisionist interpretation of Unitarian Universalist history, and therefore some explanation is in order.

First, this family tree shows Transylvanian Unitarianism as quite separate from North American Unitarianism. This is based on my reading of Earl Morse Wilbur’s history of European Unitarianism; Wilbur dearly wanted to connect Transylvanian and North American Unitarians, but the few connections he documents may be summed up as: maybe a few English-speaking Unitarians read a few books about Transylvanian Unitarianism. When you look at the two Unitarian groups today, some of the differences are more pronounced than the vague theological similarities: the Transylvanians have bishops, their religion seems more narrowly ethnic, etc. Thus, I depict the two groups as quite separate.

I understand North American Unitarianism and Universalism as being reactions against aspects of Calvinism. Thus I show both groups as having roots in Calvinism.

North American Unitarians came in large part from the New England Standing Order churches; there wasn’t enough room to show the small but important influence of Joseph Priestley and a few other early Unitarians who brought their Unitarianism from England, rather than getting it from Boston. Thus I show the major event in the beginning of North American Unitarianism to be the split between the conservatives — people like Jonathan Edwards — and the liberals — people like Charles Chauncy, a split which took place after the Great Awakening. However, the first openly Unitarian congregation in North America was King’s Chapel; originally affiliated with the Church of England, it became Unitarian in 1785, long before any of the Standing Order churches openly declared themselves to be Unitarian.

The beginnings of North American Universalism are a little more tangled. John Murray and George DeBenneville brought their Universalist beliefs from England when they came to live in the coastal cities of the New World; that history is well known. But there’s another history, well documented by scholar Stephen Marini and others, of how Universalism also arose in central New England, often in formerly Baptist churches. Thus I show Universalism as having some roots in Baptist traditions; this is perhaps most evident in the institutional structures (or lack thereof) of early Universalism. Then too, it is important to mention John Murray’s marriage to Judith Sargent; she came from a prominent and wealthy New England family, and both her family connections and her own intelligence contributed a great deal to John’s eventual success as a Universalist standard-bearer.

By about 1825, both Unitarians and Universalists were well established in North America. But the boundaries of both denominations remained somewhat porous. In the early nineteenth century, Unitarians sometimes cooperated with the Christian Connexion denomination (not show in the family tree). In the late nineteenth century, a small group of ministers split from the Unitarians to form the Free Religious Association, and in a few cases they brought their congregations with them; some of those congregations reportedly never rejoined the Unitarian denomination (though I’ve never been able to document that myself). Then around 1900, some Icelandic Lutheran churches in the prairie provinces of Canada switched to the Unitarian denomination; at least one other formerly Lutheran church, Nora Church in Hanska, Minnesota, also joined the Unitarians.

However, Unitarian boundaries were not completely porous. When William Jackson, an African American Baptist minister, tried to join the American Unitarian Association in 1860, bringing his congregation with him, he was carefully kept out.

In Universalism, the porous boundaries become most evident in the late nineteenth century, a time when many Universalists became enamored with spiritualism. Then spiritualism became an organized religion, and some Universalists, such as minister John Murray Spear, left Universalism to become Spiritualists. But again, the boundaries of Universalism were not completely porous. A splinter group of Primitive Baptists (Baptists who, among other things, refuse to have musical instruments in church, relying instead on a capella singing) adopted Universalist beliefs, probably after having read books by Hosea Ballou, the great Universalist theologian. But there has been very little interest in exploring the commonalities between Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBU) and Universalists, or for that matter Unitarian Universalists (the PBU-UU connection between may seem more robust theologically than the connection between Transylvanian and North American Unitarians; but the class difference is far greater).

As for the racial boundaries of Universalism, they were slightly more porous than those of the Unitarians. The Universalists accepted Joseph Jordan, an African American and former Baptist minister, into fellowship and ordained him in 1889. However, the racial boundaries were not all that porous: there remained little denominational support for African American Universalists outside of a couple of congregations in Virginia, and individual Universalist congregations in the South remained explicitly segregationist up into the mid-1960s.

The late nineteenth century saw a growing number of connections between Unitarians and Universalists ; this is symbolized on the family tree by Eliza Tupper Wilkes; she was ordained a Universalist minister, but worked for both groups at different times, and founded both Universalist and Unitarian congregations. There were also strong connections between both the Unitarians and the Universalists with the Congregationalists. During the early twentieth century, there were Universalist congregations that merged into Congregationalist congregations, and both Universalist and Unitarian congregations that federated with Congregationalist congregations. Some of the federated congregations still exist; they are one congregation in real life, but on paper they also exist as two separate congregations, and when you join a federated congregation you decide if you’re joining as, e.g., a Congregationalist or a Unitarian.

In 1961, the Unitarians and the Universalists consolidated (the legal term is “consolidated,” not “merged”). This now seems inevitable to us here in North America, but groups like the Khasi Hills Unitarians in India, or the Universalist churches in the Philippines, had no corresponding group to merge with.

Finally, it is worth remembering that several features of contemporary North American Unitarian Universalism which today seem diagnostic in helping to identify who’s a Unitarian Universalist are actually recent innovations. The “seven principles,” the widespread use of the flaming chalice in worship services, the water communion service — all these grew out of the feminist revolution of the 1980s, a revolution led by people like Natalie Gulbrandsen. Feminist theology has helped drive us further away from groups like the Primitive Baptist Universalists, while driving us closer to the United Church of Christ (UCC), a very liberal Christian group that is the inheritor of the old conservative New England churches from which the Unitarians split in the early nineteenth century. The UCC and the UUA today are close religious relatives, sociologically, politically, and demographically. The UCC and the UUA cooperated to produce the innovative “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality education program; politically, UCC churches are often to the left of UU churches; demographically both groups a dominated by white college-educated professionals. The only big difference today is that more UCC members believe in God than do Unitarian Universalists; though that too may be changing, as a friend of mine who’s a UCC minister says that most of the children and teens in her church are professed atheists.

PDF of the family tree.

A Black Universalist in the 1830s

One of the best things about being part of a typical UU congregation is that you get to hear other people’s stories. If you join a men’s group or women’s group, if you become a Sunday school teacher, if you simply open yourself to others during social hour, you will hear people’s stories: “When I first met my life partner…” someone will say; or, “When I was in eighth grade…”; or, “When I lived in Virginia….” So begin the little stories about someone else’s life.

No one is going to publish a big fat biography of an ordinary person’s life. Usually, the only time we get to hear the story of someone’s whole life is after they die, at their memorial service. Mostly we hear little pieces of other people’s lives; but if you listen long enough, over the course of years, you will hear enough to piece together — not a biography, but a sort of patchwork quilt of that person’s life.

We can also piece together something of the lives of ordinary people of the past: people who are not powerful, famous, male, white, and highly educated all at the same time. With such ordinary people, we mostly can know only pieces of their stories. But we can fill in the holes between the pieces with questions, and stitch it together, like a quilt, into a whole.

This, then, the story of Nathan Johnson, a Black Universalist who lived from 1795 to 1880.

About Nathan Johnson’s early life, we can only ask questions. Who were his parents? Was he born free, or did he emancipate himself from slavery? How did he learn to read? How did he get to the north? He was born about 1795, perhaps in Virginia; [1] or perhaps in Philadelphia, either enslaved or free. [2] The first real fact we know about Nathan Johnson’s life is in 1819, when he was in his twenties, he got married in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford in that time was a city with a surprisingly enlightened racial outlook. The Quaker residents of the city had been helping enslaved persons run to freedom since at least the 1790s. [3] The city was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. And in New Bedford, a person of color could do quite well financially: by about 1800, one black man, Paul Cuffee, of African and Wampanoag descent, had amassed a small fortune through shipping and international trade. [4] Continue reading “A Black Universalist in the 1830s”

Documents on Eliza Tupper Wilkes in Palo Alto

The documents below tell the story of Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes and her efforts to start a Unitarian organization in Palo Alto, in the years 1895-1896. (Though a Universalist, she was at that time working for the Unitarians.)

Wilkes first came to the Bay area in 1890: “By the early 1890s, as heart problems and a hectic schedule caught up with her, Wilkes began to spend the winter months in California. During the winter of 1890-91 she served the Alameda, California, Unitarian Church.” [Article on ETW, http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/elizatupperwilkes.html accessed Oct. 10, 2013, 14:32 PDT]

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In 1893, she began serving as Rev. Charles Wendte’s assistant in Oakland. “It should be added that when, in 1893, Mr. Wendte reassumed the Unitarian superintendency for the coast for two years more, he invited Rev. Mrs. Eliza Tupper Wilkes to become his assistant and substitute during his absence. Mrs. Wilkes greatly endeared herself to the congregation during her eighteen months of earnest and efficient service.”

— The Unitarian (collected ed., Boston: George Ellis), March, 1897.

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Since hiring Wilkes allowed Wendte to hold down another paying job, as the Pacific Coast superintendent for Unitarians, he had to pay her out of his own pocket. She was charged with overseeing the Sunday school, pastoral calling, adult organizations, and she was asked to do occasional preaching. Wilkes resigned from Oakland in March, 1895. “Her health had not improved, and Wendte could not afford to pay her.”

— Arnold Crompton, Unitarianism on the Pacific Coast (Starr King Press / Beacon Press, 1957), p. 151.

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By November, 1895, the Pacific Unitarian reported that the Women’s Unitarian Conference voted to continue its support for Wilkes’s missionary work. At that time, she was living in Berkeley.

— “Notes,” November, 1895, vol. 4, no. 1 (San Francisco: ), p. 6.

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According to Doug Chapman, Wilkes “was the first woman to preach at the Stanford University Chapel — in May, 1895. Her sermon was titled ‘Character in the Light of Evolution’.”

— “Dakota Territory’s Eliza Tupper Wilkes: Prairie Pastor,” paper delivered at the Dakota Conference on History, Literature, Art, and Archaeology, Augustana College, 2000. [For an account of this sermon, see this blog post.]

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The Woman’s Club was addressed, at its last meeting, not by Miss Holbrook as advertised, but by Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, of the First Unitarian Church, Oakland. Not having a special address prepared, she was asked to speak of Woman’s Clubs. She said they were in no sense an achievement but a prophesy: the worst use to make of them is as a mutual admiration society, as has been done. That they are needed is an advertisement to the world that women have not yet found their place. Until this is accomplished and men and women stand on the same plane in our meeting Woman’s Club will be a necessity as a means to an end. Separate clubs are a training school for women. In these they hear their own voices, learn executive ability, and gain experience. Yet such clubs are one-sided, disjointed affairs.

As a mother of six children she spoke from experience when she said that mothers needed relief from their home duties, hence she would not have the club a mother’s meeting but a meeting of mothers; a place where they should not hear so much of their own duties, but something of the duties of fathers, if need be. but particularly of outside things, of literature, science, art, that they might take home with them some thought to brighten the daily routine.

— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 3, no. 18, May 10, 1895, p. 2.

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Mrs. Wilkes will hold Unitarian services at Parkinson’s Hall, Sunday afternoon, November 3rd, at 4 o’clock. All are invited.

— The Palo Alto Times, vol. 3, no. 44, November 1, 1895, p. 3.

Continue reading “Documents on Eliza Tupper Wilkes in Palo Alto”

Sermon by Eliza Tupper Wilkes, Stanford, 1895

This sermon by Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes (1844-1917), preached at Stanford, comes from “The Sunday Sermon,” a weekly summary of the sermon preached at Stanford printed in the Daily Palo Alto of Stanford University, vol. 7, no. 78, Monday, May 6, 1895, p. 1. This reads like someone’s careful notes of the sermon; it is too awkward, and far too short, to be an actual reading text. Nevertheless, it gives a good sense of how Wilkes preached late in her career.

The sermon also gives a opportunity to see one way an experienced evangelist made herself known in a community. She doubtless chose to address the topic of evolution because it would be a topic of interest in a university chapel. In less than six months, Wilkes had gathered a group of Unitarians and other liberals, who then formally organized as a Unity Society (not a full church, but a lay-led society) in January, 1896. The Unity Society did not last long, but it laid the groundwork for the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, which was organized in 1905, and lasted until the Great depression.

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The sermon Sunday morning was preached by Mrs. Eliza T. Wilkes of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. The subject was “The Forgiveness of Sins in the Light of Evolution.”

Do not think I do not realize the awful presumption of speaking to you on such a subject. A short time ago a minister asked me if I believed in evolution. I said most certainly I did so far as I had gone. Sin has been considered the choice of the imperfect for the perfect. Today most of us regard it as a crime against life. Your body, complete in every function, is a model body. Violating anything which retards this, is sin; retarding life is immorality and bin. Dying to live is full complete life. A criminal has more to hope for than the licentious person. We see all around us the results of sin. It is as much a sin to think wrong as it is to do wrong.

Evolution, with its awful fact of heredity, emphasizes the old law that the father’s sins descend upon the children. Children suffer for sins not only of the father but of the third and fourth generations. It emphasizes the curse against wrong-doers. We are not living in a universe of goodness. Hell cannot be put off. “Whatever a man soweth that he reapeth.” Are we held hand and foot in the inexorable grip of vice? Cannot we get free? Must the prodigal son be stricken from the gospel’s pages? True, there are no longer any punishments left in our philosophy, only consequences. Are there no evangelists for us to see? Are there none to save the captive and to help the lost?

A few months ago I was preaching in a room over a saloon. A friend who always waited to see me home was standing in the doorway. I preached on the well known subject, “Salvation Through Character.” My sermon sounded void and empty, but when I reached the door my friend, who drinks, gambles, and according to the old saying, “whose worst enemy is himself,” said, “I like those sermons on character, but how about us poor devils who haven’t any?” We must ask that question or stop preaching. If the philosopher can not help those poor ones who need help we had better stop and tell again the old, old story.

Life has in it a re-creating force. Life brings to us sweetest results: it takes the scar and destroys every sign. Every great thought clearing the brain gives new re-creative force, puts new life into the very scum of things. Through intellect and affection, new life comes to fainting souls. Every new burst of emotion arouses the will, and it is through action alone that character arises. We change our lives by our wills. Our destinies are in our own hands. “What thou lovest thou bccomest.” Moral power has in it the life principle of re-creating. The worst consequences of sins are the breaking down of intellect and character. When one’s soul has come to sin, all the beauty of the present time is left behind. The great power is a loving power. But how docs one know it? Only through the touch of human love. You may talk to some who know not of love, but every soul forgives sins. The consequence of sin is distrust in other hearts.
Some one spoke to me of the fate of poor women who had sinned. I could not think how to help them. I was influenced by another’s sin. One of them came to me. At first I could say nothing, but my own soul helped me. Though our hearts hasten to Calvary, shall we pass by those who want us to help them?

I stood by a poor girl who was suffering for her own and another’s sin. I said, “God will forgive.” “Yes,” she answered, “God will forgive, but women won’t.” There are sins which can never be forgiven in this world or the world to come; but out of this loss come new hope and spiritual gain. They become monuments of love, faith, and trust in fellow men.
As I finished talking to her, they sent for me to go and see a man. I found him in a dark, gloomy corner of our beautiful city — a wreck, apparently. He had sown to the wind and was reaping the whirlwind, he had done what many young men are doing — he had “sown his wild oats.” He was what we should call a delicate man; used the vernacular which learned men use; he was a college man. “I got off the wrong way,” he said, “I want to know how to get hold of life anew. I can’t see a clear way.” He told me that all through these years his one true friend had been his little wife, and now for her sake he wanted to begin life again. I said: “My friend, I can’t help you to begin life anew. Reap what you have sown. There is no power in Heaven or on earth that can give you back these years. But God isn’t in a hurry; there is plenty of time. Take hold of that wife’s faith in you and it will help you. And in after years you will say you have gained much, you have been helped to carry character to a higher level. Remember this — the universe is before you waiting to raise the will of man when he is ready.” When I had finished I thought it would have been better to say, “Except ye become as a little child, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Indiana Universalism, 1807-1916

Back in 1917, Rev. Elmo Arnold Robinson published a two-part history of Universalism in Indiana in the Indiana Magazine of History; the numbers of the journal were vol. 13 no. 1 (March, 1917) and vol. 13 no. 2 (June, 1917). You can find these articles in various places online, but perhaps the most convenient way to obtain them is through JSTOR; unusually for JSTOR, both articles are offered free of charge.

“Universalism in Indiana,” part one

“Universalism in Indiana,” concluded

Robinson later wrote the book-length history The Universalist Church in Ohio (Ohio Universalist Convention, 1923). And yes, there is a connection to Palo Alto: Robinson served as the minister of the old Palo Alto Unitarian Church from 1921 to 1926; he was fellowshipped as both a Unitarian and a Universalist minister.

Marriage as a religious act

I received an interesting and thoughtful comment via email on a sermon titled “Marriage as a Religious Act” which I recently posted on my main Web site. I realized that this sermon relates to some issues you, dear readers, and I have addressed on this blog — most importantly, the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism, and the theological basis (if any) for marriage in our tradition. Since this is something we have talked about here, and since I greatly value the comments I get from you, I decided to post this sermon and see what you might have to say about it. The sermon beging below the fold.

Continue reading “Marriage as a religious act”

A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1

Opening talk from a class on Henry David Thoreau, given at the UU Church of Palo Alto on 18 April 2012.

Henry Thoreau is one of those literary figures that everyone likes to think they know. But having read him (and even studied him in a desultory way), and having read a good deal about him, and having lived the first forty years of my life in the very landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, in which he lived, and having been licensed as a tour guide in Concord, and having preached about him, and having in short devoted rather too much attention to Thoreau — the more I know about him, the more I feel that we tend to impose our sense of what we want Thoreau to be onto who he actually was.

What I would like us to do is to try to understand Thoreau as he really was, not as we would like him to be. That means that we cannot understand him as an environmentalist, because that is not a term he would have known, nor am I convinced that he would have been comfortable with that term. That means that we cannot claim Thoreau as a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or an atheist or humanist, as various people have done over the years, for as an adult he would not have accepted any of those labels. That means that we should not think of him as one of the key figures in nineteenth century American literature, for in his own lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a writer, especially as compared with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and while Thoreau may today be considered a key figure in American literature, arguably he remains misunderstood primarily because his gifts in broad humor and the telling of tall tales are rarely acknowledged.

So who was Thoreau? Continue reading “A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1”

A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series

The best organized series of Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, and certainly the series which maintains the highest quality overall, was the New Beacon Series in Religious Education, produced from 1937 to c. 1957 under the editorship of Sophia Lyon Fahs by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Ask someone who went to a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in the 1950s, and they’re almost certain to remember Beginnings and How Miracles Abound and The Church across the Street. Ask someone whose children went through a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in those days, and they would probably add the Martin and Judy books for preschoolers.

In the Palo Alto church’s Sunday school this year, we used the book From Long Ago and Many Lands from the New Beacon Series. It has been so successful that I’m thinking of continuing on with the next book in the series. I searched the Web for a complete listing of the New Beacon series arranged in order of the age of the students, but could find nothing. Below find just such a listing. Please leave corrections in the comments.

  Continue reading “A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series”